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Courtesy of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley

Sen. Chuck Grassley is a champion of establishing gender balance in the H-1B visa system.

Women in STEM fields a hot new aspect of immigration reform

by Ashley Devick
June 14, 2013

The H-1B visa was designed as a temporary work permit to serve as a stepping-stone towards permanent employment and citizenship in the U.S.

Catering to highly educated individuals, roughly 100,000 of these visas are distributed each year, mostly in fields such as science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM fields. That number continues to grow as corporations insist that they have open positions that American workers aren’t qualified to fill.

But some say the H-1B visa is a tool for abuse and discrimination. The victims: foreign women with STEM backgrounds who aren’t getting an equal shot.

Karen Panetta is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. She also is editor-in-chief of the award-winning Women In Engineering magazine, which is published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers trade association.

A dedicated supporter of recruiting more women to engineering fields, Panetta estimates the H-1B recipient pool is 85 percent male.

Some may disagree with her estimate but not with the assessment that the current number of women in STEM fields is low—maybe as low as 26 percent of total workers. Even that number may be skewed higher by including administrative roles. And Panetta believes that the H-1B is a contributing factor to the disparity in the male-to-female ratio.

In written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 18, she described the gender imbalance.

“The IEEE-USA represents more American high tech workers than anybody else, so we have sources,” Panetta said. “One from inside the industry, looking at the off shoring companies that dominate the H-1B program, is that their global hiring is 70 percent men. But in the U.S., where outsourcing companies get more than half the capped H-1B visas, the ratio is more like 85 percent men. That's outrageous.”

Panetta believes that this trend creates work environments that may be unfavorable to women, based on a set of imported cultural values that don’t emphasize the importance of gender equality at work.

“They have a negative effect, not only on the H-1B process for women, but for American women who have to then work in these environments, with these individuals who come from cultures where women are not treated equally and women are not respected in the workplace,” Panetta argues. “That’s a huge issue and American women won’t tolerate it. They’ll just quit. After the age of 35 the drop off and attrition of women in STEM fields essentially falls to the floor. People think it’s because they go off and have families, it’s not.”

According to Panetta, creating a system that ensures equal numbers of men and women H-1B recipients would result in a surge of women workers. In effect, she is advocating for a new form of affirmative action, a controversial policy that has recently been rolled back by the U.S. Supreme Court in terms of racial preferences.

Panetta understands she needs data to back up her assertions. The problem is that these numbers are not available to the public.

Despite the fact that gender is a data point on the required I-129 visa application form, neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services tracks the number of men and women being awarded these visas.

Bill Wright, spokesperson for U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, confirmed that the government has the information but is not capturing it.

“There is a space for gender on Part 3 of the Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker (Form I-129),” Wright said. “However, that particular category is not electronically captured in a manner that we can readily provide. You could certainly request this information via the Freedom of Information Act; that would require a manual check of each petition filed and I can’t estimate how long that would take.”

In fact, multiple parties have made FOIA requests. Because the form is electronic it should be relatively easy to pull out the data.

“I can get them a freshman in college from Tufts University to show them how to use it,” Panetta said. “They have the data; it’s a matter of them running a query and then tallying it up.”

It may happen sooner rather than later.

The U.S. Senate is moving forward with a bill that will require the Department of Homeland Security to track the number of women recipients of the H-1B visa.

One of the biggest supporters of the bill is Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. In March, he wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlining his concern that the H-1B visa program has been abused.

“The program was meant to complement an employer’s workforce and to provide employers with an opportunity to legally bring in highly skilled workers for temporary admission,” Grassley wrote. “Instead, we have learned that the program has disadvantaged American workers, including women.”

Grassley encouraged Napolitano to hand over the data provided by employers on the I-129 form to better determine just how many women get H-1B visas on an annual basis, dating back to 1992. He said having the data is a critical aspect of understanding the problem and finding an answer.

Grassley also asked Homeland Security to consider gender bias as it approves H-1B visas in the future, to make sure that discrimination against women is not tolerated when employers seek to bring in foreign workers.

As a result, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill requiring Homeland Security to report on gender ratio in the H-1B. While it still has a long way to go before it is officially passed as law and the data is released, it’s a good start, advocates say.

When the numbers do come in, Panetta is confident that her estimates will be spot on. The big question is whether the knowledge will make a difference in the amount of women in STEM fields.

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, says the answer isn’t that cut and dried.

While there is a disparity between men and women in the STEM fields, Klawe prefers to focus on increasing the number of women who graduate with degrees in computer science and computer engineering because she sees enormous opportunity for women to succeed.

“I think within the tech industry the opportunities are huge,” Klawe said. “I tell everyone that if you wanted to pick a single discipline to get a major in right now, computer science is by far the best.”

In computer science specifically, female workers make up roughly 10 percent of the field. So when it comes to a lack of female workers coming in on H-1B visas, she believes that the estimate that 85 percent are male is in-line with the current statistics of women graduates in the United States.

“You look at the demographics in the United States and if the percentage of people getting H-1B visas who are female is greater than or equal to the percentage of females graduating with those degrees in the US – which it is – then it clearly isn’t making it worse for women in the workplace,” said Klawe. “It’s just perpetuating a problem we have, which is not enough women are studying these fields.”